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Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

crossposted from Voices on the Square

The fundamental objectives of a national Steel Interstate project are two-fold:

  • Reducing CO2 emissions; and
  • Pursuing Energy Independence

The importance of reducing CO2 emissions as a step toward sustainability ought to require no elaboration. It has, of course, been elaborated on in previous Sunday Train essays, and likely will be again, but this Sunday, I will leave it as read. The importance of reducing grossly wasteful oil consumption in long haul freight transport follows directly from the position of the Transport sector as the number two emitter of CO2, and the opportunity presented by long haul electric freight rail to operate at about 20 times the energy efficiency per ton-mile as long haul truck freight.

The importance of Energy Independence for a sustainable economy may not be as widely understood, but it is as fundamental. For an economic system to be truly sustainable, it must be reproducible. That is, it must be sustainable even if adopted by all countries in the global community. That is why simply importing energy from others to cover the massive gap between our country's biocapacity and our country's ecological footprint is not, in fact, sustainable. It cannot be reproduced all around, because then there is no "somewhere else" to go get the energy.

Indeed, to be truly sustainable, a country such as ours, with twice the average biocapacity per person, ought to have the capacity be a net energy exporting country. So Sustainable Energy Independence is not even an ultimate target: it is the immediate goal to pursue, on the path to the ultimate target.

And with about a fifth of our petroleum consumption going for long haul truck freight, getting even half of our long haul truck freight onto Steel Interstates would cut our petroleum consumption by about a tenth. That is roughly 7% of our oil consumption and up to about 3% of our CO2 emissions (depending on the power source), so its a one-in-fifteen slice of oil independence and a larger than one-in-forty slice of carbon neutrality.

The topic for today is the flipside of the Steel Interstate proposal: the Electricity Superhighways, and how they offer the chance to substantially increase the size of the carbon neutrality slice.

The Steel Interstates: An Overview

To the right is a map of long haul truck freight, scaled by ton-miles. That is the demand for transport that the Steel Interstate system is targeting.

Now, rail freight and truck freight each have their own advantages. One of the advantages of truck freight is its flexibility in "first mile" and "last mile" transport. The Steel Interstate does not attempt at the outset to contest this advantage, but rather it plans to take advantage of this flexibility by relying on truck transport for the "first few miles" and "last few miles" of most freight shipments, relying on intermodal transport to collect freight from an origin railhead near the origin and deliver the freight to a destination railhead near the destination. Of course, if the origin and/or destination is equipped with rail facilities, the Steel Interstate can rely on that: but the design goal is that it should not have to.

In order to be competitive with trucking in terms of transit time and schedule reliability, the Steel Interstate corridors offer Rapid Freight Rail paths for time-sensitive shipments.  90mph freight speed limits allows the Steel Interstate to beat a single truck loading dock to loading dock, even though the shipment included the time overhead of marshaling a container onto a steel interstate freight train at the origin railhead and back to a truck for final delivery at the destination railhead.

The map of Steel Interstates that I display is a notional map. The proposal is to establish one or more Line Development Banks, which will be tasked with developing Steel Interstate corridors to serve specific long haul truck markets, and the Line Development Banks would be responsible for negotiating the actual final alignment with the private railroads that own the right of way.

Sustainable Electric Power

A key element of the Steel Interstate system for today's specific topic is that the design envelope requires that the Steel Interstate corridor be able to be used for long-distance High Voltage DC power transmission corridors, for grid-to-grid power transmission. HVDC power lines can transmit power over 600 miles with only 5% transmission power loss. We do not use them for regional power distribution, since they are ill-suited for transmission of power to multiple points, but they are well suited to the task of connecting regional grids that may have excess sustainable power generation to those that have a demand to consume more sustainable power than they are currently generating.

For example, for Wind Power resources, the notional Steel Interstate corridors include a connection to the existing 460mile HVDC transmission corridor between North Dakota and Minnesota, runs through the Central Plans and Southern Plains wind resources, and connects to the east coast and Great Lakes offshore wind resources. The total wind resource in these areas are many times the present electricity consumption of the United States: indeed, the total wind resource in Kansas alone could provide 75% of US electricity consumption.

Renewable, Sustainable Power and the Baseload Fiction

The imagined bête noire of Windpower to Windpower opponents is that Windpower cannot provide "baseload power". However, baseload does not exist in reality: it exists as a result of the institutional arrangements we have developed for managing a fossil-fuel powered electrical grid. What exists in reality is a fluctuating total amount of load placed upon the grid. It can be split into predictable demand and unpredictable demand. Predictable demand follows a daily cycle, with different heights depending on a variety of factors ~ expected weather conditions, regular weekday, weekend, holiday weekend, etc. Unpredictable demand is then just the difference between predicted load and actual load, and by its nature it does not follow a regular pattern, since the regularities can be detected and added to the prediction.

Any constant source of power presents a mismatch between load and supply, which has to be compensated for by being able to tap supplies that can be brought online quickly. Even a "normally constant" supply can be divided into predictable supply and unpredictable supply. The predictable supply is generally close to a square wave: supplying the capacity when running, and supplying zero when scheduled to shut down. The unpredictable supply is also close to a square wave, consisting of the shortfalls that occur when the supply is scheduled to be available but there is a problem that prevents it from generating. We could measure the percentage of the time that the supposedly constant power source was not generating power as its "intermittency", and the percentage of the time that the supposedly constant power source was unexpectedly not generating power as its volatility.

Any independently variable source of power can presents a similar  mismatch between load and supply, if the supply does not tend to occur alongside the load. It also can be split into the predictable supply and unpredictable supply. We can
Much of the complaint that Windpower treats it as totally volatile, with the variations in supply treated as if they are totally unpredictable.

That is, of course, a fairy tail to scare children. The volatility of a single Wind Turbine is quite high. However, the volatility of the total energy supply of wind turbines across a wind farm is substantially lower. First, the average wind across the wind farm is more predictable than the wind at a specific wind turbine. Second, the wind energy across the farm is less variable than the wind energy at a specific turbine. So there is less variability to predict, and that variability is also easier to predict.

The same thing applies if there are multiple wind farms spread across a single wind resource, the total electricity supply even less volatile: there is less variability than for an individual wind farm, and its easier to predict the variability than for an individual wind farm. Research shows that the wider the distribution of wind farms across a wind source, the less variability is experienced.

And, here is where the Electricity Superhighways comes in, the same thing applies yet again: the variability of wind power generation across multiple distinct wind resources is even lower, and the predictability of that variability even higher.

This is why establishing an electrical system which required each individual wind farm to store electricity to be able to provide a constant supply is an inefficient design: it is over-correcting, because the variability of total Wind Energy production is substantially less than the variability of Wind Energy production at any individual wind farm.

Natural Energy Storage

The baseload fiction argument relies heavily on a status quo bias. We do not question the system we currently have, but rather take it for granted. We are used to systems with baseload power, so we think of baseload power as if it was natural. But its not: its a consequence of designing our energy production system in a particular way.

In reality, we already rely heavily on stored power. That should not  be surprising, given the mismatch between baseload generated power and variable demands, but since its part of the status quo, we take it for granted, and it does not come to mind when opponents of the harvesting of sustainable renewable power yell, "zOMG! Variable Power! Massive Storage Requirements!".

Dammed hydropower is, after all, power storage, storing the power represented by the flow of water down a particular drop by physically storing the water behind a dam, and releasing the water from the dam to produce power that is used to generate electrical energy.

And as you can see, the notional Steel Interstate connects to many of our larger hydropower resources: in the Pacific Northwest, in the Southwest, at Niagara Falls, and of course in Tennessee, the best dammed state in the nation.

Estimates are that existing energy storage, combined with some modest upgrades to transmission corridor capacity, is sufficient for Wind Power providing 20% of our electrical energy supply. Extending the capacity to transmit surplus renewable energy long distances can only only increase the share of Windpower energy supply that can be supported by current energy supply.

Natural Consumption Matching

However, the harvest of sustainable, renewable power can do better than this. This chart (explained further at this site) shows the total photo-voltaic power supply in Germany in various days of the year, versus average power demand at various hours of the day.

Adding a substantial solar energy supply component to substantial Windpower energy supply components results in an average renewable electricity supply that matches total energy demand more closely than a steady baseload power source. That reduces pressure on dammed hydropower resources for compensating for predicted supply/demand mismatch, so it can be focused on the unpredictable supply/demand mismatches that its very rapid start-up times makes it very suitable for.

Indeed, solar and wind power generation is, on average, negatively related ~ windy, cloudy days with lower than average solar power generation having higher than average wind power generation, and visa versa for clear, still, sunny days. So once we expand both windpower and solarpower capacities, the combination is less variable than other source is on its own.

There will still be swings on the demand side and swings on the supply side to take into account. If we had a dispatchable power source with a carbon neutral fuel, they could be scheduled them to be generating in the periods when we expect a supply shortfalll. And this, rather than baseload power supply, is an ideal role for biomass power to play. The best biomass power source for playing this role could well be biocoal, since biocoal has the high power density and easy storage of mineral coal, and when produced with a sustainable biomass feedstock is carbon neutral. And when we have phased out coal power energy production, we will have ample generating capacity to choose from to use for biocoal power generation.

The iron law of sustainability is: sustainable+unsustainable=unsustainable.

That is, unless the biomass feedstock is produced sustainably, then the fact that it is carbon neutral does not automatically make it a sustainable power source. And since we are presently producing beyond the sustainable biocapacity of our country, estimates of biomass power supply capacity based on monoculture cultivation of plantation pines or on stripping biomass that for sustainability ought to be mulched and left in place are likely to overstate our sustainable biomass energy production supply.

The use of biopower as a "firming" energy source is therefore more appropriate to take best advantage of our ability to schedule biomass energy production to best complement the harvest of energy sources like wind, solar, run of river hydro, tidal power, wave power and geothermal. It obtains the greatest value from what the biomass power generation has that the harvesting of the "use it or lose it" power sources do not, while economizing on the total energy budget harvested from biomass.

System Integration

The Electricity Superhighway piece of the Steel Interstate proposal can contribute to one more piece in our pursuit of a 100% carbon neutral supply of electricity.

The US has been establishing hydropower dams for quite a long time now, and most of the most promising sites have already been dammed. Indeed, many in the environmentalist movement would argue that we have over-dammed  the country.

While we have many multiples of current electricity consumption available in Windpower and solarpower energy resources, existing hydropower capacity is a fraction of current electricity consumption. The more we rely on hydropower to cover to dispatch renewable power during periods of unexpected mismatches between other renewable supplies and consumption, the more valuable that existing hydrpower capacity becomes.

However, unlike the current system, there are also unexpected excess supply periods, when there is more available than required, because of strong renewable power generation. And we can take advantage of that to stretch the energy storage capacity of existing dammed hydropower systems, by adding reverse pumped hydropower to existing dams. This system uses power from the grid to pump water from the base of the dam back into the reservoir, to be used when required.

Since the hydropower will be used for only a fraction of the day, on average, and since the flow of the river will continue to provide additional power to be stored in the reservoir, the reverse pumped hydropower does not necessarily require the same capacity as the dam generating supply.

The efficiency of the reverse pumped hydro system depends on steadily it can operate. Consider a hydropower dam that generates for 20% of the average day and during that period produces on average at 50% of its total generating capacity. That means its average energy supply is 10% of its total generating capacity.

Now, supply that the reversible pumped hydropower aims to double the effective energy storage of the hydropower dam. That means that it must on average pump back half of the water released during generation. That is 5% of total generating capacity, which means that:

  • if it can operate 10% of the time, the reverse pump capacity must equal the power generating capacity;
  • if it can operate 25% of the time, the reverse pump capacity must be equal to 1/5 of the power generating capacity; and
  • if it can operate 50% of the time, the reverse pump capacity must be equal to 1/10 of the power generating capacity

So for storing the same amount of energy, long periods of more modest amounts of surplus energy can require 1/10 the capital investment as storing short bursts of large amounts of surplus energy. And the broader the range of transmission of renewable power, the longer the period of average surplus, the smaller the typical excess supply in proportion to total demand, and the more predictable the existing of periods of excess supply.

The direct effect of the Electricity Superhighway is to reduce the volatility and reduce the variability of total Renewable Energy supply for the country. And indirect effect of that is to substantially reduce the cost of stretching our existing hydropower energy storage capacity.


As always, the end of the Sunday Train essay is not the final word, but the invitation to start the conversation. Remember that any aspect of sustainable transport policy is fair game for conversation ~ though having spent some hours writing about this topic, I may tend to force fit some other topic into this one, so please flag that you are raising a different topic when doing so.

Midnight Oil ~ Power and the Passion

Originally posted to Sunday Train on Sun Sep 02, 2012 at 05:26 PM PDT.

Also republished by Climate Hawks, DK GreenRoots, Climate Change SOS, Systems Thinking, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Pump storage (9+ / 0-)

    Requires a supply of water at the bottom to pump up - not easy on a flowing river.

    On the other hand, it is excellent as a means of providing virtually instant-on capacity to smooth out high peak demands.

    It is used in the UK by the National Grid to cope with extra demand during the periods between BBC tv shows or in the advertisiing intervals in commercial TV. The two highest viewer stations are BBC One and ITV1 (STV in Scotland) and the British have the habit of switching on electric kettles (tea!) at the points in the transmissions so demand is quite predictable almost down to the second. The grid controllers have TVs to check the precise times in case of under/over-run and put the pump storage stations on standby to keep the power supply stable.

    Continuing on a TV near you; "The Magical Mitt Sorry Tour (Underpants Edit)"

    by Lib Dem FoP on Sun Sep 02, 2012 at 06:15:56 PM PDT

  •  Interesting: the 2nd most populous urbanized (4+ / 0-)

    area in the country is not on the proposed "notional steel Interstate".  It's 250 miles from it, where it seems ot go through Dallas-Ft. Worth - - Houston TX.  With the truck traffic that runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian along Inerstate 35 and from Houston (a REALLY big port, now upgrading to the "new" Panama Canal-size ships) along I-45, why would it no be connected?  Oh, they also refine a lot of petroleum in to fuels and chemicals, plus plastics and such.  Import stuff from ALL over the world, and ship our stuff elsewhere.

    Just wondering.  

    Good diary.

    Torture is Wrong! We live near W so you don't have to. Send love.

    by tom 47 on Sun Sep 02, 2012 at 08:06:37 PM PDT

    •  Second? You mean seventh? (5+ / 0-)

      1. New York - Newark; 2. LA - Long Beach - Anaheim; 3. Chicago - Gary; 4. Miami; 5. Philadelphia; 6. Dallas - Fort Worth; 7. Houston; 8. Washington DC; 9. Atlanta GA; 10. Boston.

      Houston / DFW is one of the top five Express HSR passenger corridors in the country, but that is a long haul freight system, and you can see on the map of truck freight movements why the Dallas through to Harrisburg PA corridor gets priority over the Houston to Jacksonville gulf coast alignment~ its got more freight.

      And of course there are multiple freight rail alignments between DFW and Houston ~ not being on the Steel Interstate does not mean being disconnected from the system, any more than having a house that is not next to an interstate exit means that the person is unable to drive on an interstate.

      Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

      by BruceMcF on Sun Sep 02, 2012 at 08:41:11 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Uhm, OK I'm statistically challlenged. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RunawayRose, G2geek

        I was thinking city, not urbanized area, but I beliieve Houston is 4th (NYC, LA, CHI, HOU):

        I was also making the North-South goods movement point, not the East-West point along the gulf.  Still seems like such a major port should be directly on the trunk of the system, not a side connection.  Note the "Texas Triangle" on the trucking route map (HOU-SA-DFW).

        Torture is Wrong! We live near W so you don't have to. Send love.

        by tom 47 on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 04:58:00 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Again, we have the truck freight flows here ... (6+ / 0-)

          The Texas to points north North-South long haul freight flows are even thinner than the gulf coast freight flows. And if there was a branch from Dallas along the Texas Triangle, it would definitely go to San Antonio. That is the thicker freight market than Dallas / Houstone.

          The Gulf Coast through to Houston is arguably the freight corridor that you'd start next, but you put in a corridor for the larger flows Dallas / Northeast and Florida-Georgia / Midwest first, then Louisiana / Northeast is a higher priority than Houston / Northeast, since Houston is a mere 300 miles from the Dallas gateway, and adding the Pacific Northwest and Front Range is a much higher priority in terms of the 800 mile to 2,000 mile freight transport markets we are targeting here.

          Passenger rail goes on different priorities ~ indeed, for passenger rail the population of the urbanized area does indeed come to the fore, and 7th place is nothing to sneeze at. I'd definitely see the priority for either Express HSR, Rapid Passenger Rail, or both, between Houston and Dallas if Texas can ever get its shit together.

          Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

          by BruceMcF on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 08:34:03 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  California 99 (0+ / 0-)

            I knew there are a lot of trucks on State Route 99 but I didn't realize it that significant nationally. For that matter the amount on US 101 is more than I would have thought. I'm surprised how relatively thin California 58 is between Bakersfield and Barstow, relative to I-5, I-15 & SR-99

            "Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of State and corporate power." -Benito Mussolini, Fascist dictator of Italy

            by hankmeister on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 10:13:12 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Note that that is long haul freight ... (0+ / 0-)

              ... an overall trucking map is fuzzier than that. And North/South from the Bay to the LA Basin in the Central Valley would dominated by short haul ~ if you are shipping long distance out of either Oakland or Long Beach, doing it via both the Bay and the LA Basin would introduce delays for no benefit.

              If log-haul is classified by length of the shipment rather than length of carriage, that bulge in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley is likely trucks carrying produce to railheads.

              Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

              by BruceMcF on Tue Sep 04, 2012 at 08:20:00 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  something seems awry... (0+ / 0-)

                I can speak with some expertise that only a few specific crops are shipped by rail. I think your length shipment theory is correct. However, I think what is showing up on that map in the case of US 101, SR-99 & I-5 is are fruit, vegetable, and nut crops bound for international destinations out of Oakland and LA/Long Beach.  

                Most of the hay eaten by horses in the middle east is grown in California.

                "Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of State and corporate power." -Benito Mussolini, Fascist dictator of Italy

                by hankmeister on Wed Sep 05, 2012 at 09:55:37 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]


    Check out the for a detailed explanation of the huge and manifold benefits of the National Steel Interstate System. Learn how you can join the movement to bring the Steel Interstate to life.

  •  aren't these corridors also producing landscape? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    NoMoreLies, Judge Moonbox, G2geek

    in your scheme?
        much of it could be: already owned, accessible, and not incompatible, infrastructure ready.

    Especially passive solar installations, but even wind where safer.

    And jobs in rural areas.

    This machine kills Fascists.

    by KenBee on Sun Sep 02, 2012 at 11:00:01 PM PDT

  •  There's a huge supply ... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ozsea1, G2geek

    of ultra-cheap energy on the far side of the moon in the form of Helium-3, but JPL is experiencing massive lay-offs now rather than being funded to go after a global solution to Earth's energy needs.

    If figures.

    "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the universe." -- Albert Einstein

    by Neuroptimalian on Sun Sep 02, 2012 at 11:44:42 PM PDT

    •  While Helium 3 may be a source of ... (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      PeterHug, xaxnar, RunawayRose, Odysseus, G2geek

      ... power in a working helium3 fusion reactor, the equipment is even scarcer than the elememt, at present.

      Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

      by BruceMcF on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 12:02:27 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Which is why steps forward ... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        should be taken rather than processes foreclosed.  It would seem to be inevitable anyway, but the longer the wait the greater the cost.  And talk about job creation!  

        "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the universe." -- Albert Einstein

        by Neuroptimalian on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 12:34:46 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'm watching what happens with Polywell & EMC2 (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Neuroptimalian, G2geek

          "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

          by xaxnar on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 07:03:22 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  An aspect of FUTURE nuclear power tech (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          that those of us who vociferously oppose the current business model should keep our eyes on.

          We are not Luddites; after all, the current industry tech is roughly fifty years on, and we can do better.

          "No man is rich enough to buy back his past." ~ Oscar Wilde

          by ozsea1 on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 06:24:38 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  just say Thorium. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            That's the bridge fission technology between here and fusion.  

            "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

            by G2geek on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 06:57:34 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Agreed. (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              "No man is rich enough to buy back his past." ~ Oscar Wilde

              by ozsea1 on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 09:08:09 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

            •  We have not, however, built THAT bridge yet ... (0+ / 0-)

              ... either. Because the thorium fuel cycles are not efficient paths to weaponized nuclear material, we stopped working on development of thorium nuclear fuel cycles back in the 60's or 70's.

              Obviously the electricity superhighways are just as important for heavy reliance on nuclear power as for reliance on sustainable renewable power, since the problems of mismatch between consumer load and available supply is still there for constant supply systems. France, heavily dependent on nuclear power generation, also relies heavily on cross-border cross-haul of electricity, exporting power during off-peak and importing power during peak.

              Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

              by BruceMcF on Tue Sep 04, 2012 at 08:06:57 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  Charlotte Transit (5+ / 0-)

    Charlotte has an electric train that runs along South Boulevard. I bought a one week pass for 20 bucks.
    I round trip pass is 4 bucks.

    Didn't think to take a picture of the cars for you.

  •  Tipped and R'd, However (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    This diary represents more forward thinking skills than just about anyone in the federal gov't today-- as far as I know.

    however, regarding HSR, defintions please.

    80mph average speed-- like what is being discussed for a train running between Chicago and St Louise-- is not high speed rail.

    I've ridden the Eurostar from London to Paris and back, so I know what actual high speed rail is.

    dumbed down definitions in this, the "greatest nation on earth" are unacceptable.

    China's funding for/long term plan for HSR far, far exceeds ours. this is also unacceptable.

    IMHO, HSR on shared rail (with freight trains) is not the way to go. Amtrak on a short run I do in the midwest is constantly delayed 25-30 mins bcause they have to pull over and wait for freight trains-- which have first priority.

    This is weak.

    "A civilization which does not provide young people with a way to earn a living is pretty poor". Eleanor Roosevelt

    by Superpole on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 06:32:04 AM PDT

    •  Dispatching error then......... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      xaxnar, ozsea1, G2geek

         As far as I know, AMTRAK is the highest priority on any territory I ever worked. We'd wait hours for them.

         There's a lot can go wrong with a freight train, like getting hit on a trackside defect detector, that the dispatchers can't figure in to their plans. Signal troubles, locomotive failure, you-name-it, and remember: Murphy was a railroader!

      Compost for a greener piles?

      by Hoghead99 on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 06:54:14 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I've Ridden One Particular (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        xaxnar, Judge Moonbox, G2geek, Woody

        Amtrak route five times this summer-- each and every time it was 25-30 mins late.. the "reason" being freight train traffic.

        "Dispatching error".. is that supposed to be OK?

        "A civilization which does not provide young people with a way to earn a living is pretty poor". Eleanor Roosevelt

        by Superpole on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 07:00:32 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Amtrak has priority (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Amtrak does have priority, by force of law. And better, by force of contracts that increase the payments to the freight lines that get Amtrak trains where they are going on time, and penalties when they fail to do so.

          However, sometimes the freight lines decide they will just take the hit on the Amtrak payments and penalties, and what you gonna do about it?

          But things have been getting better, MUCH better for Amtrak overall. Repub Cong Mica, head of the House Transportation Committee, recently held hearings to complain about Amtrak's losses on food & beverage service. He had to add up 10 years of these deficits to get a number that would begin to seem large in the D.C. scheme of things.

          You can be sure that if Mica could have found something to complain about more substantial than the on-going losses on cheeseburgers, he would have held hearings on the more serious subject.

          On-time performance, for example, has increased to 84.2% for the current fiscal year-to-date (thru June) compared to 79.3% for the same period last year.

          The on-time performance has been hurt by construction on two important routes out of Chicago, to St. Louis and to Detroit. Trackwork has been underway to get these routes in shape to begin running up to 110 mph. You should see some difference in a few months, when the warm construction season ends, and both speed and on-time performance should increase.

          •  No, They Don't Have Priority (0+ / 0-)

            Please. I sat on the train and listened to the conductor explain over the PR system that we were stopping "due to freight train use of the track". are you implying the conductor was lying to us?

            I understand and appreciate Amtrak is trying to do better. the issue is, looking at overall context-- i.e. I have riddien the Eurostar from London to Paris-- there were NO delays there and they do not share rail with freight trains who have priority.

            If we are to remain a "great, first world nation" we must have true HSR (160-180mph) on dedicated rail. building this would create 1,000's of well paying jobs. the notion it can't be done is bogus and weak.

            "A civilization which does not provide young people with a way to earn a living is pretty poor". Eleanor Roosevelt

            by Superpole on Tue Sep 04, 2012 at 05:15:29 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Let me try again (0+ / 0-)

              Amtrak does have priority, by force of law [since it was founded]. And better [since the PRIAA law of 2006 went into force], by force of contracts that increase the payments to the freight lines that get Amtrak trains where they are going on time, and penalties when they fail to do so.

              However, sometimes the freight lines decide they will just take the hit on the Amtrak payments and penalties, and what you gonna do about it?


              Yeah, Amtrak could sue to enforce the law. But it has to work with these companies every day on dozens of trains over dozens of routes, so it tries to get along with its landlords. And remember that the freights have many powerful bought-and-paid-for allies in Congress, which controls its piddling subsidy.

              Yes, it's possible in my mind that the conductor was, uh, over-simplifying in a misleading way. Another commenter explained better than I can, how the length of the freight trains vs. length of the sidings and other complicated reasons can affect the flow. They aren't always easily communicated in a PA description. (btw I think you are lucky you could hear the PA announcement; this is a problem still being worked on.)

              I should have added that many routes out of Chicago have work underway as the C.R.E.A.T.E. projects (helped by stimulus funding) try to untangle the knot of rail and roads in ChicagoLand and speed up freight and passengers.

              But we are trying to respond in a general way as best we can, while you have not shared the particular route complain about.


              Certainly sharing freight and passenger trains is inherently problematic. Federal safety regulations require that passenger trains running mixed with freight, like the Acela, must be built "like tanks", making purchase and operation of such equipment very costly, and slower than that in Europe.

              But not even the Amtrak-owned sections of the NorthEast Corridor are completely free of freight trains. And they are infested with commuter trains as well. I believe that California's HSR will be the first route in the US to be largely free of freight trains, tho not of commuter trains. And iirc, even there the portion running from San Jose to San Francisco along the Peninsula will have some late-night freights.

              At least Amtrak is making progress on two important routes. Using stimulus funding, the State of Michigan bought the right of way between Kalamazoo and Dearborn just outside of Detroit. It will be obliged to carry some freights (to a Ford factory, among others), but Amtrak will control the dispatching and signaling. Along the Hudson, a long stretch south of Albany has been leased to NY State long term. Again, while a few freight trains will run, Amtrak will control all the scheduling.

              But we need some successful models of higher speed rail, even if they share tracks with freights. Otherwise you can't hope to persuade Congress to fund another true HSR line outside of California and the NEC -- if we can get even those multi-multibillion projects built/rebuilt!

              •  Whatever... (0+ / 0-)

                Please take up this issue yourself with Amtrak (and good luck getting a response). You can't convince me I did not hear what I in fact did hear more than once.

                Nice try, no cigar.

                Bottom line; the U.S. is woefully behind France, Japan, China, etc., regarding true high speed rail.

                "A civilization which does not provide young people with a way to earn a living is pretty poor". Eleanor Roosevelt

                by Superpole on Tue Sep 04, 2012 at 09:41:07 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  And that bottom line ... (0+ / 0-)

                  ... while certainly true, does not contradict the argument in this essay, that we should also build Rapid Freight Rail corridors.

                  And, indeed, that position cannot be used to argue against building Rapid Passenger Rail, because we need Rapid Passenger Rail for the same reasons that we need Express HSR Rail.

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                  by BruceMcF on Fri Sep 07, 2012 at 03:30:11 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

            •  Nobody is saying that it can't be done ... (0+ / 0-)

              ... and given the number of Sunday Trains that have advocated for Express HSR, no regular reader is going to buy any effort to pretend that I am advocating for only investing in 110mph corridors and not investing in Express HSR corridors.

              So I have to take it that you are arguing that (1) the fact that we should invest in Express HSR in appropriate corridors combined with, (2) the fact that passenger trains on conventional rail with no investment in serving passenger trains face freight interference delays implies (3) that we should not invest in upgrading conventional rail corridors to 110mph and eliminating freight/passenger train capacity constraints.

              indeed, planning is progressing for a 220mph Chicago / St. Louis rail corridor, but its absurd to argue that we should only invest in Express HSR, as you appear to be arguing, and that we should not invest in Rapid Passenger Rail, as other Sunday Trains have discussed, and, as this diary discusses, Rapid Electric Freight Rail.

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              by BruceMcF on Tue Sep 04, 2012 at 07:59:10 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

      •  Not necessarily dispatching error ... (7+ / 0-)

        ... on a long single track stretch, with a siding that is too short for the freight, forcing the freight to back up could take more time than standing at that siding and waiting for for it to pass.

        As discussed in "Waiting on a Train", UP makes those kinds of "dispatching errors" all the time. By contrast BNSF works to try to get the Amtraks through on schedule if they can accomplish it. Not surprisingly, the trains running on BNSF track tend to have better on time performance than the trains running on UP track.

        The Steel Interstates would be 10:50 single track, double track, triple track with passing loops, or even full two way local and express track, to reduce interference between Rapid Freight and Express Heavy Freight, and as a side effect would allow 110mph passenger trains through with opportunities to stay on schedule.

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        by BruceMcF on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 08:47:50 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Semantic arguments. (7+ / 0-)

      That's why you notice I call the bullet trains Express HSR and the 110mph corridors Rapid Rail.

      The 110mph corridors with the right transport demand are tremendously useful, offering the ability to cover operating costs out of the farebox without operating subsidy, and with much lower capital cost per track mile than Express HSR.

      Whether or not they "should" be called HSR is a semantic quibble, and doesn't change the fact that the Chicago to St. Louis route is a far better investment than most of the new interstate highways being funded far more generously.

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      by BruceMcF on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 08:39:51 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I Disagree (0+ / 0-)

        "semantic quibble".

        LOL.. OK, so if I drive a Ford Taurus, I can go around telling my friends I drive a Corvette? that is OK??

        No, it's not OK.

        the "this is just semantics" is a weak load-- and it's a cover up for the fact the U.S. is in fact woefully behind nations like France, Japan and China when it comes to actual high speed rail on dedicated rail lines.

        nice try, but you can't spin away inconvenient truths.

        "A civilization which does not provide young people with a way to earn a living is pretty poor". Eleanor Roosevelt

        by Superpole on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 09:56:07 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  What I am referring to is ... (5+ / 0-)

          ... the absurdity of arguing that the Chicago - St. Louis is not a well justified investment based on the nothing but a semantic argument. Nothing in your argument leads to a conclusion that the Chicago - St. Louis line is a bad project.

          Your argument seems to be that if the Ford Taurus was in good shape, met your needs and selling at an attractive price, you shouldn't buy it if it had a "sport detailing package". "Why, the nerve of labeling it something it isn't. I'm not buying that car. That will show Ford!!!"

          The fact is that nations like France and Japan also have lines like that ... that's what they consider to be normal Express Intercity rail ...

          ... it would be cutting off our nose to spite our face to deny ourselves those corridors as an act of protest against the DoT reforming the 1990's era terminology of HSR as anything 90mph or more to over 125mph as "HSR - Express", the 125mph corridors as "HSR - Regional" and the 110mph class corridors are "Emerging HR".

          Certainly we should build Express HSR corridors ... but insisting on building "nothing but Express HSR" is a strategy that leads to not building any, while a strategy of building both Express HSR and Rapid Passenger Rail is a strategy that offers promise of building both.

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          by BruceMcF on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 10:11:24 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  Dissent (0+ / 0-)

          You are engaging in semantic masturbation.


          "No man is rich enough to buy back his past." ~ Oscar Wilde

          by ozsea1 on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 06:28:04 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Oh, and by the way ... (9+ / 0-)

      ... while Rapid Passenger Rail is certainly on topic for the Sunday Train on general principles ..

      ... when you say "this is weak" it seems as if you are reading this essay as being about passenger trains.

      This particular essay is, as it says, about the Steel Interstate proposal, using electric freight rail to cut down our massive energy wasted on long haul truck freight.

      If you have a better way to cut down that massive energy wastage ... which your "this is weak" implies ... well, out with it.

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      by BruceMcF on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 08:54:37 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Let me try a summary (8+ / 0-)

    • The Steel Interstate is a plan to create a high capacity freight rail network that matches/complements the Interstate truck freight patterns.
    • It's going to be fast enough to be competitive with trucks, enough to capture a significant amount of traffic
    • Electrified, it will be more efficient and will significantly reduce our consumption of oil.
    • The right of way will also be used to carry electricity by high efficiency tech, connecting regional grids all along the steel interstate, including wind, solar, hydro, and sustainable biomass. (1)
    • Where an individual wind turbine or solar panel farm's output is variable, the more arrays that get connected over a larger area, the more reliable/predictable the overall power production becomes.
    • This is how sustainable power technologies can be harnessed to produce a system capable of meeting the base and peak demands we currently have, without resorting to fossil fuels.
    • "Excess" power can be stored by using it to refill hydropower systems and pumped storage reservoirs.

    (1 and what about high speed, high capacity data networks too? Do we need more bandwidth and higher speeds, and would this bring to areas that need it?)

    Comment: Our current power grid and power generation systems, our road and rail nets, are the result of history and ad hoc factors that did not and do not take into account the limited amounts of fossil fuels available or the damage their use does to the planet. The Steel Interstate is a combination of sustainable technologies that do so, in a way that does not require major new innovations or scientific breakthroughs - just the willingness to make the investment.

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 07:37:26 AM PDT

  •  Truth is America needs (5+ / 0-)

    to put into place a high-speed rail line soon. Something that demonstrates to the American public that this is the solution. Otherwise America will slip further behind and be seen as the used-to-be country.

    •  They're building an Express HSR corridor ... (5+ / 0-)

      ... in California ~ its an all new alignment, so that won't be finished quickly.

      But there's a range of Rapid Passenger Rail corridors that are being worked on and will start to be put into service over the next four years, in Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, and Illinois, and upgrades to the Cascades Corridor that will see them planning to raise the speed to 110mph in the next round of projects.

      Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

      by BruceMcF on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 11:44:10 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Should natural gas turbines play a role (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BruceMcF, G2geek

    for peak electricity generation to supplement wind and solar? Can't gas turbines be easily started up and stopped (unlike coal-generated power)? I know, natural gas is not sustainable or carbon-neutral, but it's better than coal.

    And, using electricity rather than oil for transportation (electric trains and cars) will reduce CO2 production even if a portion of that electricity is produced by natural gas. Electric vehicles are inherently more efficient than burning oil in internal combustion engines.

    •  Electric freight trains ... (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Judge Moonbox, ozsea1, cocinero, G2geek

      ... will save CO2 even if the electricity is generated by burning coal ~ at 15x-20x improved energy efficiency (increased efficiency from truck to train, times increased efficiency from diesel to electric), three times the CO2 per unit of power would still be a reduction in CO2 emissions.

      As far as natural gas turbines, they will play a role, without having to do anything to see to it. Coal fired power plants require a higher percentage uptime to cover their capital costs. Gas turbine plants, on the other hand, can make back their capital costs from generate in the range of 5% of the time.

      Restricting the usage to the declining amount of conventional natural gas, which has relatively lower GHG emissions impact due to limited fugitive methane emissions, and avoid having to rely on fracked natural gas, which has substantially higher GHG impact due to fugitive methane emissions is about (1) doing the stuff above and (2) imposing an effective price on dumping CO2 and methane into the atmosphere.

      What matters more than capacity is power generation, since that is what is connected with actually burning the fuel and generating the emissions. Having capacity to generate 50% of our power from natural gas, but only generating 5% of our electricity from natural gas, is twice as as good as having half the capacity, but using it to generate 10% of our electricity.

      So the goal is to swing the economic so that it becomes increasingly infrequent to require the higher cost electricity from inefficient natural gas peaker plants, while the more efficient combined cycle natural gas power plants are pushed to one side from not being able to cover their capital costs.

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      by BruceMcF on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 03:25:02 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Rock Island Clean Line (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BruceMcF, Judge Moonbox, ozsea1, G2geek

    I read a letter to the editor today with the title "Hop Aboard the Rock Island Clean Line." I thought it was going to be about trains. I rode on the Rock Island Line back in the 1950s and 60s.

    Instead it was about a system using HVDC technology

    ...intended to deliver 3,500 megawatts of renewable energy from Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota to Illinois and other eastern states that have a high demand for reliable and affordable clean energy.
    It sounds like a great idea.
  •  As an over-the road truck driver (7+ / 0-)

    I love this diary.
    Every day I am acutely aware of how much fuel I am burning. Good fuel mileage for a long haul truck like I currently drive is 7-8 mpg. Pull a heavy load over mountians, however, and now you're talking a 6 mpg average for an 800-mile trip.
    I've often thought about how much sense it would make to ship most long haul freight by rail.
    There is widespread concern within the trucking industry that there will be driver shortages as older truckers retire.
    In addition to that issue, many anticipate that there will be fewer trucking companies in business in coming years.
    The new CSA 2010 regulations will likely force non-compliant truckers and trucking companies out of business.
    With the implementation of a steel highway, I would think the upside would be a net gain of sustainable jobs.
    Furthermore, the carbon footprint of the shipping industry would be greatly reduced.
    As  driver, I would much rather work an 8-10 hour day hauling intermodal containers to and from a railhead, ending my day at home with my wife,  rather than putting in a 14 hour day on the Interstate and sleeping in my truck.
    There would be additional carbon savings in eliminating traffic congestion in our cities, which I can personally testify to. Traffic congestion is a big time, money, and energy waster.
    I believe there would also be a huge safety benefit to both truck drivers and commuters by getting more big trucks off the road.
    A win all the way around, I think.
    Thank you for this enlightening, timely, and super-informative diary!
    I hope you post more diaries on this subject!
    I'm all for it!

    "Better to die standing, than to live on your knees." Che Guevara

    by Interceptor7 on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 03:46:03 PM PDT

    •  Thank for a well-written comment (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Interceptor7, IechydDa

      from the long-haul truckers viewpoint, something that the low information American voter desparately needs...

      I grew up in Detroit.

      Seriously, it's all about the messaging.

      "No man is rich enough to buy back his past." ~ Oscar Wilde

      by ozsea1 on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 06:34:17 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Thanks for that ... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      ... as ozsea said, that's great.

      Another thing to note is that pluggable hybrid diesel-electric traction is a lot more promising for short-haul than for long-haul ... both because more of the driving is near the front of a trip, where one could have pluggable electric recharging available at both the railhead and the loading dock, and because more of the driving is on national and state highways rather than the interstates, so there is more stop and go driving which, as far as I understand it, especially benefits from hybrid transmission.

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      by BruceMcF on Mon Sep 03, 2012 at 07:57:48 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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